They’re hard to miss: nearly a dozen 20-foot-long banners staked throughout Santa Barbara and Goleta emblazoned with big red letters that spell “SHAME ON [insert name here].” And the issue, on the surface, is easy to understand: bad blood between a local carpenters union and Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital over a lost contract. But how and why the union chose the people it’s targeting, and what exactly it hopes to accomplish with the ongoing public protests, is much less clear.
Carpenters Local 150 started bannering Goleta Hospital Foundation trustees last month — in front of their regular places of business — claiming the hospital, its Board of Trustees, and its main contractor should be faulted for hiring nonunion subcontractors from outside the area. (Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital is currently undergoing a massive renovation and rebuild. Construction crews broke ground in March 2010 and the work, which has a price tag of $103 million, should be completed by summer 2012. The trustees meet together once a quarter, and each spends a few hours a month working during off time to raise money for that project and others.)
Local 150 — based in Camarillo with around 1,500 members — says it has a labor dispute with the company chosen to do the hospital’s metal framing and drywall. The union claims its nonunion competitor — C.A. Hofmann Construction, Inc. in Loma Alta — pays its employees unfairly low wages, doesn’t provide health care, and generally contributes to what Local 150 calls the “erosion of standards for local workers.”
C.A. Hofmann declined to be interviewed for this story. “We don’t have a dispute with anyone,” said a representative before hanging up. Indeed, there hasn’t been a formal complaint against the company filed with the National Labor Relations Board. No one from Local 150 could be reached for comment. Numerous messages left over the last few weeks with chapter president Joseph Duran and others have gone unreturned, as were messages left with the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, which officially oversees Local 150.
The little that’s known about the purported dispute is what’s included on a flier handed out by the banner holders, people unaffiliated with the union and hired through the Rescue Mission or Salvation Army for $8 to $10 per hour. Though generally pleasant, they appear to have little or no knowledge of the issue, wordlessly passing out the fliers which feature a rat nibbling on an American flag below the headline “SHAME ON [person’s name] For Desecration of the American Way of Life.” They set up the signs four to five days a week, except when it rains, and shake their heads when asked if they have their own union. Local 150 has used this strategy since at least 2004, bannering up and down Southern California when it loses a contracting bid. It’s not known how long the union plans to stake out the trustees here in Santa Barbara County, but they can sometimes hold their ground for months.
Cottage Hospital and the trustees have voiced tempered exasperation at Local 150’s method of attracting attention. Cottage spokesperson Janet O’Neill said the Goleta hospital and its foundation have little to do with hiring subcontractors. That duty was given by Cottage Health System to the project’s general contractor — HBE Corp. — which is specifically directed to take offers from local companies as it considers competitive bids from elsewhere in the state and beyond. There’s no union agreement in place. The goal, O’Neill said, is to get the project done in an efficient, cost-effective manner, explaining seven out of the 29 subcontractors hired thus far are based in the tri-counties. Cottage’s Goleta and Santa Barbara campuses, in response to bannering outside of both, have posted statements in the entryways outlining the situation. HBE representatives didn’t return calls for comment.
“[Local 150’s] angle is pretty despicable,” said board chair Jeffrey Bermant, explaining he and the rest of the trustees aren’t involved in choosing subcontractors. “We have absolutely no say in how the hospital is built. … They seem pretty removed from reality.” Local 150 erected a banner outside Bermant Development Company on Hollister Avenue last month, only communicating with Bermant, he said, after he called the union’s headquarters to ask what was going on.
A representative claimed the union sent Bermant a letter six months earlier detailing the dispute. Bermant responded that he never got one and said he would’ve passed it to hospital administrators if he had. He argued that the trustees are only tasked with raising money and have no power over policy. The rep, Bermant said, explained the union was targeting trustees to get the attention of the hospital’s higher-ups. Speaking to The Santa Barbara Independent, Bermant was quick to point out that he supports the union’s right to banner, that he understands the value of free speech. Its focus and energy, however, is misplaced, he said.
Joanne Funari, Businesses First Bank president and a new member of the foundation’s board, watched a “shame” banner go up in front of her office on the corner of State and Figueroa streets last month. “I’m just a volunteer trying to raise money,” she said, similarly confused why Local 150 would call her out. Funari said she was never contacted by the union and doesn’t understand what it hopes to accomplish by going after her and the other trustees. But, she said, “There’s nothing I can do about it. Everybody has the right to freedom of speech.”
Trustee Robert B. Locke, whose Goleta law firm is bannered, passed along similar sentiments. He also noted that the signs, at first glance, suggest the holders were fired by the person named on it or that there is some internal conflict within the business it sits in front of. “That I took offense to,” he said. His secretaries, happy employees of Robert B. Locke Law Offices, made their own banner that’s now placed on the sidewalk next to Local 150’s. It reads: “Shame on Joe Durand and Local 150 for Harassing Volunteers of Nonprofits.” They created and dispersed competing fliers in defense of their boss as well. Locke said he’s tried to get in touch with Durand many times without any luck.
A number of complaints have been filed in recent years with the National Labor Relations Board against the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters. All were specific to the strategy of bannering third-party, neutral businesses or employers in a passive effort to get them to stop working with a target company. The NLRB, however, ruled in each instance that the carpenters unions weren’t picketing (meaning they weren’t being confrontational or actively trying to convince employees to not work at job sites) and therefore not in violation of the National Labor Relations Act. The most recent ruling was handed down in April 2011.